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8 February 2020

Veganism and vegetarianism: environmental impact

Paul Webber 2019 Paul Webber Minister
Tractor farming - Richard Bell - Unsplash

In the first blog ‘Veganism and vegetarianism: a Christian response’ the ethical argument was discussed about how concern for animals should shape what we eat.

In this second post we will investigate the environmental impact, as we are instructed to have a concern for creation and the climate.

There is no denying that food production has some level of impact on the environment, whether it is land clearance for farming, irrigation, use of fertilisers or greenhouse gas emissions from machinery. Almost all farming, whether it is for crops or meat production, changes the natural state of the land.

Environmental impact

As Christians we should be conscious about the impact that we have on the planet both on a local and global scale. We are called to be stewards of the earth. But what impact does meat production really have on the environment?

An academic study in 2018 published in Nature argued that, with increased human populations and affluence, we need a rapid transition towards plant-based diets to address climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution of soil and water, and access to drinking water (Springmann, M., et al., 2018, “Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits.” Nature 562(7728): 519-525). It argues that the average world citizen needs to eat 75% less beef, 90% less pork and half the number of eggs if we are to have any hope of keeping global warming under 2°C , let alone 1.5°C. Other studies claim that it takes 7kg of grain and 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of beef, although how that beef is produced is wkey. Industrial meat production is far more grain and water intensive than pasture-fed, free-range meat.

But it is worth noting that different research makes different claims about environmental impact of farming and meat production depending how the impact has been calculated. According to the UK government, only 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture. The biggest emissions come from transportation (27%) and energy supply (24%).

For this reason, instead of cutting out meat to truly help reduce climate change, isn’t it far more important for us to first consider how much energy we use, how much we travel and the mode of transport we take?

Energy usage

Meat production is accepted as producing more greenhouse gas emissions than some other food types. But other foods, such as coffee and palm oil, can also have high impacts. So making considered decisions about all the food that we eat is important.

Maybe becoming a vegan or vegetarian is the right choice for you, but even if it isn’t there are still things that we can do to reduce the climate impact of the meat we eat, such as:

  • Not waste any food.
  • Reduce the amount of meat we eat.
  • Consider the type of meat we eat (beef is recognised as having a much higher impact than chicken).
  • Consider where your meat is from. Due to farming techniques the impact of meat from some areas of the world can be higher than others. For example, the average beef from South America results in three times the amount of greenhouse gases as beef produced in Europe - and uses 10 times as much land.

Vegetarianism and church history

Veganism is not a recent movement or practice, nor one entirely divorced from Christian history.  The Vegetarian Society, for example, was inspired by the teachings of minister William Cowherd, who promoted abstinence from meat as a form of temperance in the 19th century.

John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church), William and Catherine Booth (founders of the Salvation Army) and Christian writer Leo Tolstoy have all been very influential in the development of modern vegetarianism.


Photo by Richard Bell on Unsplash

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